BLUES & BEYOND: 50 years of mojo workin’
The blues was happening in Atlanta in 1972 — for those who knew where to look
Before Blind Willie’s, the Northside Tavern, Fat Matt’s Rib Shack, and even Blues Harbour and other bars and clubs that have presented live blues music in Atlanta, those who lament the lack of blues venues for bands to play need only look back fifty years ago to feel even a little better. There were relatively few locations for musicians, or even established national acts, to get their mojo working in 1972.
At that time, the genre was experiencing one of its many lulls. While mainly, white, British acts such as the Rolling Stones, Savoy Brown, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Ten Years After, and later Joe Cocker, Foghat and others influenced by the blues were banking coin in the United States, the originators of the music, includingMuddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, along with John Lee Hooker and others in their peer group, were still barely making ends meet playing the Chitlin’ Circuit. Sometimes, these progenitors opened for headliners at larger arenas, but, at the time, even the next generation of blues players, like B.B. King and Albert King, were only playing large halls to warm -up the audience for acts like Johnny Winter, who had played Woodstock, and was carrying the blues torch to the masses.
Newer acts like Macon, Georgia’s The Allman Brothers Band (Live at the Fillmore East, released July 1971, was still picking up steam), Wet Willie, Bonnie Raitt, Roy Buchanan, the J. Geils Band and others were mixing blues with soul, folk, country, R&B and even jazz to create a new composite that was blues-based but nothing you would mistake for Robert Johnson, even if the performers’ hearts were in it.
Jimi Hendrix was gone, and a shift to a softer, singer-songwriter style epitomized by Cat Stevens, Carole King, Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt, none who can even generously be considered blues, wooed the white, middle class kids. Prog rock of the King Crimson, Yes and ELP variety was eating up the FM airwaves and David Bowie, T.Rex and Roxy Music tapped the glam route to international acclaim, leaving little room for less strident, more organic, American sounds.
All of this is to emphasize that finding authentic blues in Atlanta during the early ‘70s was difficult, although not impossible. It just wasn’t in the public consciousness, not even as much as it is today. Until Stevie Ray Vaughan blew the doors open and helped sound disco’s death knell with his 1980 debut, the environment for a style of music that has always struggled to stay relevant needed a shot of cultural oxygen.
One of the few local acts emerging out of 1972’s somewhat dry spell was the Hampton Grease Band. According to founding guitarist Glenn Phillips, that avant-garde outfit always saw themselves as a blues collective, even fashioning their name to feature iconic lead singer Bruce Hampton, similar to what the Butterfield Blues Band did. They were one of the first to play free concerts at Piedmont Park in 1968, paving the way for the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead who famously did the same later. Phillips tells of fielding a call from Allman’s manager and Capricorn Records founder Phil Walden asking if he could put his new band in the park to play for free.
The Grease band also opened for B.B. King at Emory. Their lone 1971 album, Music To Eat, twisted blues in all sorts of interesting — and defiantly, non-commercial — directions. Regardless, few would peg the Hampton Grease Band as purveyors of the blues any more than one might Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band or Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, whose music the Hampton Grease Band more closely approximated.
HGB guitarist Phillips cites some obscure places the band worked when they were first starting out, circa 1967, such as Stables Bar & Lounge located “on the Black side of town.” Then, the guitarist worked with local icon Bill Sheffield in an outfit colorfully named Mystic Knights of the Sea, opening for Muddy Waters during a five night stand at Richards, off Monroe Drive, in early March ‘74. The relationship between Muddy and Sheffield became so close that when the latter’s daughter was born, Waters asked to be Honey Bee’s godfather. Additionally, Phillips backed Bo Diddley when he played Atlanta.
Sheffield’s name is often mentioned when those who were active players in 1972 speak of influential Atlanta artists on the scene. “We played places like The White Dot and Ray Lee’s Blue Lantern (Blind Willie McTell is rumored to have played the Blue Lantern parking lot for change when he wasn’t working at the Pig’N Whistle), all joints on Ponce de Leon,” Sheffield explains. “They were really rough joints. It was mostly country stuff but we would do blues and R&B when we could get away with it. That’s where we met Ellyn (Webb) who opened the Northside Tavern. She was a big blues fan.”
The venue most referenced by both Phillips and Sheffield when discussing this era is the 12th Gate Coffee House at 10th and Spring St. “Oh yeah,” recalls Sheffield, “The 12th Gate is where I met with a lot of blues people. I opened for Big Mama Thornton and George Smith there for a whole week of shows. And Reverend Pearly Brown, a gospel singer and a big influence on me.”
The intimate 150 capacity club the 12th Gate, hosted the original Little Feat when they were a bluesy quartet, circa 1970 (only a buck admission). “It was the place where everything was happening,” enthuses Phillips. “Think of it like a miniaturized Fillmore West. Any band you talk about from that era will tell you that was their home.” Like many places that hosted roots music, he cites the cross pollination of genres. Among the many now legendary jazz acts that played the 12th Gate were Weather Report, Oregon and McCoy Tyner. A full list of performers and dates can be found here.
In the mix, but after the 12th Gate, was both The Bistro on West Peachtree and Rose’s Cantina (1975-’77) at 688 Spring St., in the same building that later held the famous 688 Club (which opened in 1980). “I saw the Fabulous Thunderbirds at Rose’s when they were still traveling around in a van,” muses Sheffield. “She (Rose Lynn Scott) had blues, but also more of the edgier rock stuff.” Other places Sheffield played with his Eastside Blues Band were Lake Spivey Park, an outdoor stage, where he opened for B.B. King. “The old Municipal Auditorium (now owned by Georgia State University) had a bunch of blues shows,” he explains. “John Lee Hooker and T-Bone Walker, Pee Wee Crayton and Big Joe Turner. I saw The Who play there later on. It was a big venue, couple of thousand people could get in there, maybe more.”
As Sheffield recollects, “Most of the places were more rock places by the ‘70s because the blues wasn’t that big yet. The Allman Brothers were just taking off so people were just starting to learn about blues. I had gotten into Paul Butterfield in high school, so I had a jump start on that.”
But in the early part of the decade, there weren’t a lot of locals that played straight blues. “If you went down to the black neighborhoods where the blues would be, they did mostly R&B,” says Sheffield. “Some other places were Bottom of the Barrel and The Catacombs. Here again you’re talking more progressive type music than just blues, like the Hampton Grease Band.”
Sooner or later everyone who reminisces on that period gets around to the aforementioned Richards. Located at 10th and Monroe (931 Monroe Dr. to be exact), and opened in February of 1973, Richards billed itself as Atlanta’s Finest Rock Club. Bluesman Larry “Dr.” Dixon remembers, “The sound there was incredible (low ceiling) with monitors all throughout the ceiling, so anywhere you sat it was like being on stage with the band.”
But, like most of these places, Richards’ rock shows often cross pollinated into blues. Bo Diddley (misspelled on their initial poster as Didley) was an early performer. Journalist j.d. cade writes on “The Strip Project” webpage that “…aside from rock ‘n’ roll, Richards brought to Atlanta some of the old blues greats: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, and the Giant Blues Show featuring Roosevelt Sykes, Big Walter Horton, and Robert “Jr.” Lockwood. These blues performances weren’t big money makers for Richards, but the old blues men, long exploited by the white-controlled music business were paid “quite well.” Glenn Phillips, who was friends with Lowell George, and sat in with the band when they played there. It closed in 1975. A list of their performers is here.
The Great Southeast Music Hall (1969-1976) was first located in a corner of the old Broadview Plaza. The 500 seat venue also presented an eclectic lineup of folk, country, blues, and eventually punk (the notorious January, 1978, Sex Pistols show) acts. But as Sheffield remembers, “As far as places that just did blues, there weren’t a lot of them.”
But where did these clubs advertise their gigs? Sheffield, laughs. “It was word of mouth. The Great Speckled Bird was around before Creative Loafing.” Specifically, the Bird, which initially cost 20 cents, was active from 1968-1976, predating Creative Loafing and then running concurrently with it for four years. It offered a similar mix of politics and music and, until the Loaf kicked off in ’72 — and the Atlanta Gazette (1974-79) — was the only printed forum where bands and businesses could advertise their shows. All of The Great Speckled Bird issues are available online and worth checking out here to see what shows you missed and their early ’70s ticket prices (how about Pink Floyd for 6 bucks?).
Phillips makes the point that these clubs “… from the 12th Gate to Richards, to the Great Southeast Music Hall, they all had blues acts. That was considered very much a part of what was going on musically in that era. It was not unusual to see original bands with blues acts opening for them.” He flashes back to his younger days at the Municipal Auditorium, around the Georgia State area, in the mid-60’s when multiple performers would play package dates as a major influence on his blues upbringing.
Phillips cites his brother Charlie’s record store — Northside Records, located in the shopping center at the corner of Roswell and Powers Ferry Roads — as a seldom acknowledged influence on Atlanta’s blues scene. Decades before it was easy to locate albums online, Charlie Phillips stocked deep blues and jazz titles next to big selling rock records. This attracted musicians to hang out there, some of whom formed outfits that can be directly traced back to the members meeting at that shop. Certainly the Hampton Grease Band emerged from that hub.
Buddy Moss was one of the old school guys still playing Atlanta in the early 70s. Born in 1914 in Jewell, GA he wasn’t quite 60 at the time, yet was around when Blind Willie McTell was active and was influenced by him. He’s not a major figure like McTell, but had a second stab at fame in the late 60s. Both Phillips and Sheffield mention him as one of the last of the original acoustic blues guys who was on the early 70’s Atlanta blues scene. Moss died in 1984 leaving a recorded legacy that includes collections titled Atlanta Blues Legend and Atlanta Blues.
Despite the lack of venues geared towards white audiences and dedicated to the blues in 1972, the music was kept alive through creative, resourceful booking agents who hired some of the blues legends while they were still performing at near peak form. These blues musicians may have played the Royal Peacock and other small, local juke joints on the Chitlin’ Circuit when their records were first being distributed by RCA, Chess, and other labels profiting from”race music,” but it wasn’t until the ‘70s that their exposure was geared towards a broader audience. With alternative weekly newspapers on the scene, an outlet was provided where these musicians’ performances could not only be advertised, but written about in the detail and with an understanding that they deserved. —CL—